Character in Choreography

We’ve heard Fight Directors say some version of the following:

  • You must act during the fight
  • The choreography should be an expression of your character
  • Don’t worry about the speed, it’s the intention that matters

What does any of that mean?

Imagine a Real Sword Fight

The mentality and strategy of sword fighting largely remains the same across cultures. You will be portraying a character in a struggle, and it is important to convey the emotional and mental journey of the fight.

Acting the fight, and the audience connecting with your goals and actions, depends on your imagination and understanding of a sword fight.

You hold a deadly weapon in your hands, and you are facing an adversary with the same. Regardless of whether you’ve been forced into this situation or you sought it out, this moment is kill-or-be-killed.

A guarded stance will make you tough to hit, and provide opportunities to hit your opponent. However, if you’re hot-blooded, you may charge forward without guarding.

You may cut or thrust or use a combination, and you’ll mainly use your sword to defend yourself with parries as well. You’ll need to chase an opponent who moves away from you, and maintain balance to retreat or move off-line to save yourself.

In order to gain advantage, you’ll use some Preparations of Attack. Perhaps one of you will try to grab the other or resort to underhanded tricks.

In the end, you might disarm your foe, or one of you will be injured or killed.

Before you think about choreography, know that as soon as the conflict starts, one of you will die.

Move by Move

When we say “play the intention” of the move, it means that you must be thinking about the purpose of the motion, rather than just mechanically reproducing the motion.

In any attack, look at your target. This is one of the most important elements of focus that many fighters forget. Some stage combat teachers emphasize eye-contact, so actors think that they should lock eyes as much as possible. This is a major mistake, and can be dangerous. Always look at the specific target, be it the shoulder, the thigh, or the empty space after your partner ducked. It will keep your blade motion clean and safe, and shows the audience where your attention is.

For parries or any situation where your character is on the defensive, look at your partner’s shoulder of the weapon-arm. Your character is trying to see where the next attack will come from. Neither you as an actor, nor your character, can perceive the sword itself at high speed in time to react, but a “soft focus” on the shoulder will give you tons of information about your partner’s direction of action. It is also a great way to judge your measure (the correct distance to fight at).

Other motions can be broadly categorized as “preparations of attack”. The intention of a beat is to move the opponent’s blade aside to open a line of attack. You mustn’t beat without considering the next attacking action. If the beat is evaded, your character’s intention didn’t change: you thought you were going to attack, but now you’ve got to instantly change your plan. We must see that in your posture, and the frustration on your face.

Not every move is pregnant with high emotion, and not every change is catastrophic. But every moment has an intention, whether it is “kill”, “defend”, “get away”, “deceive”, etc.

Deriving Choreography from Character

As a fight choreographer, you should collaborate with your actors to understand their character intentions. Your script interpretation cannot override their acting choices, and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief by communicating why their character moves in a certain way or decides on particular fighting techniques.

Fight Director Jared Kirby has a simple 4-type categorization of fighters that can instantly give you insight:

  1. High skill, high desire to fight
  2. Low skill, high desire to fight
  3. High skill, low desire to fight
  4. Low skill, low desire to fight

Everyone thinks they belong in the first category, and no trained actor wants to be in the last category. You and your partner should pick different categories.

Other characteristics can come into play, so you should consider:

  • Does your character enjoy fighting, like an adrenaline junky, or does every moment make them more frustrated that they haven’t won yet?
  • Does your character use tricks, or are you bound by the rules of a duel?
  • Choose an animal that best expresses your character’s fighting personality (but don’t overtly play the animal)
  • Are there victory conditions besides the death of one of you? Do you care? (Perhaps you’re waiting to be interrupted by the Prince, or worry about falling off a cliff)

And those choices should change during once during the fight. Your first phrase sets up your initial fighting attitude, and the audience should understand it. Then there must be a change in one of your characteristics in a later phrase. That’s what they call a Character Journey.


You want more character in your combat? Try these simple tips:

  • Vocalize more, and make them specific.
  • Upright posture makes you look boring. The deeper you lunge, the more you want to kill.
  • Use everything onstage to win: the set and its levels, your wardrobe, other characters, use your imagination
  • Almost lose. The most dramatic event is the comeback.

And some things to avoid:

  • Don’t circle each other. If you do, make it fast and threatening.
  • Don’t rush it. The audience needs to see the character choice, not random twitching.
  • Don’t surprise your partner. It’s still choreography, and your partner will be confused if you throw in bizarre character moments that you haven’t rehearsed together.


Watch movies with great fights, especially those with dialogue in the middle of the combat.

Watch boxing and MMA fights, looking for how they approach and when they try to escape. Observing fighters getting tired is very instructive.

Program Adjustments

Starting in September, the Fight Directors Canada certification course will be a 7-week daytime program. Registration will open soon. More details very shortly.

The evening classes will continue, but with a performance focus instead of FDC curriculum. This time will be used by demo team members to get more stage combat training and rehearsal time for their choreographed fights. It will also be practice time for those in the FDC program. We will still practice fundamentals like knaps and falls and performance concerns, but you’ll be expected to get your sword fighting skills from Duello Mastery or Warrior programs, or FDC certification (past or current).

I hope this adjustment makes sense to you, but if you have any questions, please let me know.

David McCormick Head of Stage Combat at Academie Duello and certified Instructor with Fight Directors Canada. Head of Bartitsu at Academie Duello, the longest continuously running Bartitsu program in the world.
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